Guest blogger: Gerard McGurk, Open University Business School MBA Alumnus and member of our Alumni Council, Consular Regional Director – Middle East & North Africa at Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The workplace in 2015 is facing a unique opportunity (not challenge) in so far as it will have four generations (or waves) of employees (listed below). In 2015 what does this mean for employers of multi-generationals (whichever label they are given) in terms of recruitment, retention and motivation? How can managers effectively harness the human capital they bring to enhance operational effectiveness?
As global managers, we need to be careful about how we talk about multi-generational working. Most academic literature focuses on definitions of multi-generational employees from a North American or European perspective. It is a mistake to look to apply these to other regions in the world: the drivers and broader conditions (political and socio-economic) vary from country to country. The cultural dimension to multi-generational working therefore needs to be understood – both from a management and leadership perspective.
Traditionalists: born before 1945. Value hard work. Dislike for conflict and detailed orientated.
Baby Boomers: born between 1946-1964. Adaptive, goal-orientated with positive attitude.
Generation X: born late 1960’s – 1970’s. Independent, adaptable, resilient and family-orientated.
Millennials (Gen Y) – born between 1980’s and 1990’s. Creative, committed and loyal, accept diversity easily.
The continued existence of multi-generational working as both a concept and also a recurring theme for business and academic discussion demonstrates the extent to which there is no agreed approach. Thankfully these broad, sweeping descriptors don’t fully describe the wide range of experiences or knowledge that employees possess. Nor do I believe that these simplistic definitions act as the basis for managing across generations.
I should declare a strong affinity for the work of Dorothy Leonard and Walter Swap and their 2005 article on “Deep Smarts” – the “stuff the produces that mysterious quality – good judgment”. Leonard and Swap argue that experience is the reason that deeply knowledgeable individuals make swift, smart decisions. In this context, the connection with the developmental principle of “70-20-10”, with the 70 representing the informal, on-the-job, experienced-based and practice, is relevant and needs to be appreciated more in terms of understanding how certain generations of employees integrate pattern based learning into their performance.
If we accept the proposition put forward by Nonaka and Takeuchi that knowledge and intellectual capital act as a company’s primary source of production and value, suggesting experience is a factor in value production, why is there still a level of tension between managing such pivotal contributors of organisational value? Why is there still a tendency to dwell on the differences between Baby Boomers and Generation X’ers rather than focus on common goals?
In my experience of working in a cross-cultural, multi-linguistic environment, there is little to be gained from the “divide and conquer” approach. No one size fits all – the world we live in is complex and diverse and management solutions cannot be framed to capture all possible instances in all locations. Broad principles may be applicable but the policy prescriptions need to be context specific.
Managing a multi-generational workplace undoubtedly has its challenges. However primary responsibility for turning this generational diversity into opportunity rests with managers first and foremost. It is critical that they get close to their employees – whatever their age – and understand what drives them. A tailored approach is likely to be more successful as it will have their personal motivation at the heart of the solution and will address their personal goals and needs.
Building collaborative partnerships is important. Creating blended teams enables mixed experience to be shared across age differences and support a common sense of purpose. Teams comprise of individuals working towards a shared goal. It is the skill-set, knowledge, commitment and dedication to that common goal that are key. Job shadowing, mentoring and coaching are also valid and support methods of developing cross-generational meaning and shared experiences – all with the purpose of adding value, be it organisational, personal or professional.